Never Policies. Always Trump
In killing the immigration bill, Republicans remind us again that devotion to Donald Trump comes before any policy matter.
Between the Hur report, the Supreme Court taking on Colorado’s controversial ballot decision, and Tucker Carlson interviewing Vladmir Putin (items I plan to write about next week), this week’s collapse of the “grand bargain” border legislation in the U.S. Senate almost feels like an old story. But it was a consequential one, and I believe it warrants more analysis beyond what I wrote on the topic last month.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Last fall, Senate Republicans tasked Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) with the grueling job of negotiating a bipartisan immigration bill with the Democrats. He and his staff worked tirelessly for months with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) to put together legislation that ultimately included lots of Democratic concessions to Republican demands.
It was an advantageous political environment for the GOP, after all. With Biden’s crisis at the southern border commanding lots of mainstream attention, and further driving down the president’s approval ratings (in an election year no less), Democrats were desperate for legislative progress on the issue. They forewent typical Democratic bargaining chips like amnesty and a pathway to citizenship, and focused entirely on the GOP’s longtime priority of border security.
The impending legislation, which was expected just a few weeks earlier to pass, was being described as the strongest border bill in a generation. Lankford, who’s very conservative, was quite happy with all he was able to get for Republicans.
But less than two weeks before its public release, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump decided that a border deal under Biden could hurt his chances of defeating his likely opponent in November. So, not even having seen it, the former president loudly opposed the legislation, and pressured congressional Republicans to do the same.
Unsurprisingly, many followed Trump’s orders. They joined right-wing pundits in not only assailing the 370-page bill right out of the gate, but lying about what was in it. They even attacked Lankford himself, including a censure by his state party. It was clear, within a matter of hours, that the deal was dead. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it official less than two days after the bill’s release.
In response to a reporter who asked Lankford what it felt like to be “run over by a bus,” the senator added, “And backed up [over].”
Lankford later took to a podium and touched on a number of things his fellow Republicans were rejecting in their opposition to the bill. The items included more high-grade border-wall construction, emergency powers to shut down the border entirely when it becomes overwhelmed (as it currently is), 50,000 more detention beds, the end of “catch and release”, double the number of deportation flights, DNA-testing for catching criminals, funding for border-state law enforcement, more ICE agents, more border-patrol agents, more asylum officers, more immigration judges, detection equipment for screening for fentanyl, more sanction authority on drug cartels, stricter requirements for asylum qualification, a faster deportation process, and the end of parole-abuse on the southern border.
It was a shopping cart of Republican dream items. But Donald Trump said no, and thus no was the answer.
Some Republicans were surprisingly upfront about their decision being purely political. The same was true among media-conservatives.
On the Senate floor, Lankford told an interesting story. “I had a popular commentator, four weeks ago that I talked to, that told me flat out... if you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you." He added, "By the way, they have been faithful to their promise."
Others on the right nitpicked areas of the bill they believed were insufficient. Some may have even done it in good faith. But in our two-party system, neither side is ever going to get everything it wants out of bipartisan legislation. It’s remarkable (perhaps even unprecedented) that Republicans got as much as they did considering that they don’t hold the White House or Senate, and have only a razor-thin majority in the House.
As the Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl tweeted (as the legislation was being released), “The question to ask is not ‘is the bill perfect?’ but rather ‘is this any improvement over the broken status quo?’ You can always come back again next week, next month & next year. But take even marginal gains when you can get them.”
Two days later, after the bill (which included more than “marginal” gains) had effectively been killed, a frustrated Riedl tweeted, “The lesson as always for elected Republicans: Never legislate. Just focus on unpassable messaging bills, angry press conferences, TV hits, PR stunts, and trolling the libs on Twitter. Your voters will love you forever.”
It’s an important point, and it’s exactly why I’ve never put much stock in the argument from Trump enthusiasts — whether they’re politicians, media figures, or just regular joes — that their support of Trump comes from his policies.
Policies clearly don’t matter to this crowd. What they care about, and what they consider achievement, is outrage porn and Trump worship. Negotiating for policy gains is just “RINO squish” stuff in today’s GOP. It’s not bloody enough.
When Trump became president, he had Republican majorities in the House and Senate for two years. Despite having campaigned heavily on border security, and despite millions of people entering the southern border illegally during that time, there was no serious effort by Trump to pursue meaningful border legislation. And no one in the party seemed to hold that against him.
Not until Democrats won back the House did Trump finally put forth an effort — a failing one. Even with Trump subsequently directing funding from the Defense Department’s budget to replace about 400 miles of existing barriers, and add 49 miles of new wall, what he achieved on the issue pales in comparison to what Republicans would have gotten with the legislation Lankford negotiated.
Yet, I haven’t seen a single Trump devotee in Washington, the conservative-media, or anywhere else who’s even the slightest bit upset that the Republican Party, in the middle of a border crisis, just rejected the strongest border-reform bill in decades, primarily (or perhaps entirely) because Trump wanted it that way. On the contrary, they’re celebrating Lankford’s defeat, calling for his resignation, and pretending that Republicans will somehow be better positioned a year from now, if Trump wins, to deal with the issue… I’m guessing by him waving a magic wand.
The good news for Trump is that if he does win, and again manages to get very little done on the border, his party largely won’t care. They’ll just appreciate that it’s him who’s getting very little done.